Sunday, September 13, 2009

What's in a name?

I remember a conference quite a while ago where a manager suggested that we shouldn't see ourselves as mere teachers anymore but as "competence architects". That of course became the subject of many merry comments in the bar that evening but it reflects a modern obsession. We keep inventing new names for occupations, technologies, institutions and behaviour.

There's a nice blog post by Steve Wheeler (Lost in translation - read discussion too) where he discusses the problem of what to call concepts like PLE (Personal Learning Environment) or Web 2.0. Many feel that these names are inaccurate or misleading but the problem is what to call them instead. Once something has been named it's rather difficult to change the name and get everyone to agree.

We're in the midst of a merger with a neighbouring university and will emerge from the process after New Year as a new university - Linnaeus University. That means we have to reorganize absolutely everything and as a result there are countless discussions about what to call our new departments and units.

One such case is the library. Libraries today are increasingly focused on net-based resources and in some cases some of the books and journals are even being moved aside to make room for more flexible learning spaces. However for many people the old concept remains firmly fixed. If we continue to call it a library many people will fail to see how it has changed but if we dream up a new name like learning resource centre we run the risk of getting the response "oh, you mean the library!"

We also had a long discussion about what we mean today by IT. Everyone has a clear picture of what the IT department has done up till now and that is fairly limited to networks, servers, hardware etc. If we widen the scope of IT to include "softer" areas of technology use and web 2.0 (sorry!) we have to think of a new name. But if the new name is seen as pretentious or vague people will continue to call it IT until convinced otherwise.

With English been the dominant world language, all new technical advances are first given an English name and then the world's other languages have to decide whether to find their own equivalent or just to accept yet another anglicism. For example the Danes just say "computer" whilst Swedish uses "dator" and Finnish "tietokone". It's mighty hard to talk about web 2.0 completely in Swedish since no-one has yet thought up Swedish equivalents.

I'm not sure what is easier. Updating people's attitudes to the revised meaning of terms like teacher, IT or library? Or spending years "selling" a new term that few want to buy?

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